The Troubadour of Honed Banality


My Literary Hero

Sergei Dovlatov (right) with Alexander Genis (smoking) at Novy Americanets office. Photo by Nina Alovert, 1980.

A., my girlfriend, is originally from Moscow. Her mother lives around the corner from us in Queens and throws dinner parties. It’s mainly an older, cultured ex-Soviet crowd. Lots of vodka, lots of overeating zakuski (appetizers to accompany vodka)—hours of nostalgic guffawing (Soviet jokes) and choral crooning (dissident songs and Stalinist patriotic rousers, with equal pleasure). Not speaking the lingo, I grin a lot—a genial, inebriated, slightly patronized potted plant.

The air of these evenings is thick with Russian irony and cultural chauvinism. Pushkin is beyond all criticism. “How dare you even pronounce his name with your filthy mouth,” A. will flare up, not altogether faking her indignance.

Or an old photographer-pal of Brodsky’s from Leningrad (inevitably old pals of Brodsky’s are present) will assert that Russian translations of Hemingway far surpass the originals.

This latter bit of flag-waving causes me to reflect that much of the literature that deeply influenced me as a writer I read in English translation. Foremost stands Isaac Babel, whose compressed, lyric violence overwhelmed me in my twenties. Then there was Bulgakov; even P—n’s fate-haunted tales. Later, in my early days with A., while she was away and I mooched disconsolately in her apartment, I read in translation Shalamov’s horrifying, degraded, flickering Kolyma Tales about his frozen years in the Siberian Gulag. I kept dropping the book and pacing away, moaning and clutching my head at the savagery, the unspeakable pathos. Then there were Cendrars and Simenon, Borges and César Aira (another alchemical Argentinean, rendered brilliantly by Chris Andrews) .

But, however good the English versions, there’s always in these books a slight straining—a hovering sense of idioms being just off. This off-true shimmer I relish and try to emulate as a writer. It gives work a slightly mysterious, psychological stiffness. The simple becomes oddly estranged. (Ostranenie, as A. would insert, quoting Russian formalist critics.) I like the status it conveys—of being someone not of the place where I am. A permanent visitor, traveler, foreigner—even in the mirror.

Early on at those dinners in Queens, A. would nod at a stylish, dark-haired older woman down the table and murmur to me, “Lena is the most celebrated literary widow in post-Soviet fiction. Her husband was Sergei Dovlatov.”

Who?” I’d say.

“The late twentieth-century Chekhov,” I was informed.

“Oh.” (I’ve barely read Chekhov.)

To demonstrate Dovlatov’s stature, A. told me about her late uncle in Moscow, a well-known folklorist and a celebrated alcoholic, famed for plunging from a fifth-story balcony, dead drunk, and landing right at his mother’s feet, and surviving, and continuing to booze. Whenever a new Dovlatov came out, this uncle would shut himself in his room and read straight through in bed, laughing his head off at the vodka-bruised drolleries.

“You should read him,” said A. I’d shrug.

Finally, three or four years ago, I got a translation of Dovlatov’s slender The Compromise. (All his books are slender and were long out of print in the U.S.) I laughed my head off.

The Compromise (1982) presents deliciously sordid autobiographical tales in which Dovlatov deconstructs hack newspaper items he wrote (genuinely?) while working as a Soviet journalist at an Estonian paper. Then I found The Suitcase (1986)—fictionalized reminiscences of boozy Soviet pratfalls, based on the contents of the scuffed suitcase Dovlatov apparently brought out with him as an émigré.

“Too bad his language doesn’t really translate,” A. sniffed, when I told her I had a new hero. “All these subtle ironic appropriations of late-Sovietese.” I replied that I found the translation terrific and flavorsome. (Lena Dovlatov told me recently that Anne Frydman, who translated The Compromise and much of Dovlatov’s fiction, was suggested by Brodsky, who was—need I say?—an old Leningrad friend, and a literary admirer.)

“Nah,” insisted A., with that touch of chauvinism.

Imagine my snarl of glee, when, several more books later, I read of Brodsky saying that Dovlatov was easy to translate. “The decisive thing is his tone,” wrote the Nobel poet, “which every member of a democratic society can recognize.” This tone: a bleakly sly, magnificently self-deflating deadpan, through which a tight ache of lyricism occasional bursts. Dovlatov didn’t showily play around with the distorted morass that was late-Soviet language under the dead, invasive pomposity of its official culture. Rather he deftly spooned it up, undeodorized. “The troubadour of honed banality,” fellow Russian émigré critics Peter Vail and Alexander Genis praised him.

Babel famously wrote: “No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” Dovlatov’s equivalent is the precise, hysterical placement of the dialogue break. Consider the sublime guile of the final sentence of the final passage of The Compromise:

My first cousin, who has been convicted twice (once for unpremeditated manslaughter) often says to me:

“Take up some useful kind of work. Aren’t you ashamed of what you do?”

“You’re a fine one to lecture me!”

“All I did was kill a man,” my cousin says, “and try to burn his body. But you!”

Dovlatov and I, as I like to note, both arrived in New York in 1978. He, as part of the so-called Third Wave of Russians, those who were not just parked here waiting to go back. I arrived from Boston (I’d come to the U.S. as a kid from South Africa). I too once worked as a reporter (at a drab weekly local paper near Philly, right after college). And our Queens connection: until his tragically early death of a heart attack in 1990 Dovlatov lived in the Russian enclave of Rego Park.

Unlike me, Dovlatov, a big guy, had been a boxer, and was drafted as a Soviet prison-camp guard. (Actually I worked as a guard myself—sullenly guarding the door at Harvard’s rare-book library). He also edited an émigré newspaper over here, the New American. (While I myself was toiling as a sullen fact-checker at Esquire.) And his father was a theater director and comedian. (Mine was a domineering theoretical physicist and gluttonous sentimentalist.)

So do we measure ourselves against our heroes, and clutch at affinities.

Dovlatov made a splash here in the eighties and very early nineties, published by Knopf, Grove, and The New Yorker. (Apparently when Andrew Wylie brought his big, darkly brooding client to visit William Shawn–ville, staffers fluttered at his “Hemingway” charisma.) Dovlatov’s death came just before his work, in samizdat heretofore, was published to huge popularity in his post-Soviet homeland. But, since then, as I say, his work has been out of print in English.

In 2008 I began pestering my publishing contacts to bring this Russian master back into print. It was my mission of literary homage. It confirmed the scope of my lack of influence. But, to my delight, Counterpoint reissued The Suitcase last year. And now this month comes The Zone—Dovlatov’s 1982 sad-sack chronicle of his time as a guard at a nonpolitical prison camp in the non-Siberian north in the early sixties. The narrative sections are wafered between later letters to his original American publisher—a typically Dovlatovian mélange.

Dovlatov writes from a perch perversely inverse of the great Russian tradition of prison chronicles, from Dostoevsky to Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov. He’s acutely aware of this; he knew Shalamov slightly after Kolyma. His provocative contention—for an ex-Soviet writer, certainly—is that guards and zeks (inmates) share a “suspicious similarity.”

I came to the conclusion that it is stupid to divide people into good and evil. Also into Communists and non-Party members, into villains and righteous, even into men and women …

In critical conditions, people change. They change for the good and for the bad. For better or worse and the other way round.

And he explains why The Zone is no “freak show” of camp horrors:

I say once again that I am interested in life and not prison, and in people, not monsters. And I absolutely do not want to be known as the modern-day Virgil who leads Dante through Hell (however much I may love Shalamov).

These themes coalesce in a bathetic extravaganza of absurdities: the prison camp stages a play starring Lenin and secret-police chief Dzerzhinsky—both played by zeks—on the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. But at its end the guard-narrator finds himself suddenly in tears. It’s some of Dovlatov’s richest work.

And of course a river of booze also laps at The Zone. The zeks guzzle hooch and chifir, a nuclear-strength tea; the guards guzzle vodka, zek moonshine, “Chartreuse,” “pinot gris ‘rosé,’” not to mention eau de Cologne (na zdarovya, comrade).

At the table in Queens we discussed the late-Soviet technicalities of deriving alcohol from surgical glue (using a centrifuge and a pine branch to catch the, um, impurities). Then we all sat around rehearsing the proper method for drinking spirt (ethyl alcohol, full proof). Squeeze nostrils—so as not to choke on the fumes—blow out all breath, gulp, chase immediately with water (it is supernaturally dehydrating) and a gobble of zakuski.

The next book to be reissued will be Dovlatov’s Pushkin Hills, never before available here. It’s all about the subculture of alcoholics. The book recounts Dovlatov’s doleful follies, right before he emigrated, as a malcontent tour guide at the country estate of Pushkin. (Pardon: P—n.) It’s his funniest book, says A.

I hear that it also teases the whole overweening cult of adoration for him who may not be named by me.

It’s due out later this year from Counterpoint. I can’t wait.

Barry Yourgraus books of stories include Haunted Traveller, Wearing Dad’s Head, and The Sadness of Sex (in whose film version he starred). He is at work on a memoir for W.W. Norton entitled Mess: One Writer’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act.